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A National Voice for Libraries

Being heard. Changing minds. Having an impact. We know libraries change lives but that message needs constant attention. That’s why we need a strong national voice for libraries.

Since 1946 the Canadian Library Association has been that voice. But CLA is struggling. Membership is down, resources are challenged, and momentum has stalled.

Canadian Library AssociationIn trying to respond to a myriad of expectations and demands, CLA has dulled its impact. As it is currently constituted it is no longer effective. We need to reinvent it. That’s not just my opinion, the leadership of the association has said the same thing.

[Full Disclosure: I’m the CLA Treasurer and a member of the Working Group described here]

At the end of January at the OLA SuperConference, representatives from library associations across Canada came to discuss the need for a national voice and whether CLA could be reinvented to fulfill that role. The discussion was forthright and blunt. And it was good.

There’s a lot of history and baggage with CLA. Lots of people are unhappy. Maybe you are one of them.

In the nicest possible way I say: get over it.

A strong national voice is too important to be muted by injuries from the past, marginal differences of opinion, imagined slights, or even real ones. If libraries are to get their message across to a national audience (federal politicians, national policy makers, sympathetic allies and influencers, and the general public) we need to find our core issues and advocate effectively.

In a recent article, Wendy Newman was very clear about the challenge:

“It’s time to raise our game, and become much more strategic, evidence-based, disciplined advocates.

I mean strategic, in the sense of getting the greatest benefit from the scarce resources available (especially our time); evidence-based, in the sense of integrating research on what works, and doesn’t, from inside and outside the library sector; and disciplined, in the sense of a shared and unwavering focus on the long game, for the sake of members and communities, and not the institutional survival of libraries. In effect, not more advocacy of the “spray and pray” variety, but better advocacy.” Wendy Newman, Libraries Don’t Need More Advocacy, They Need Better Advocacy

Arising from the meeting at SuperConference, a rich confluence of leaders from library associations across the country have formed a Working Group to explore and define a reinvented CLA in more detail. It’s an alphabet soup of some of the leading organizations in Canada: OLA, CULC, CARL, BCLA, APLA, ABQLA, LAA, YLA, MLA, SLA, CHLA, and ASTED. In the next few months they will create a way forward or CLA will have to consider dissolving the association.

If you believe libraries are important to the future of this country, you need to support a strong national voice. If CLA emerges from this process renewed and reinvigorated, in whatever form that takes, we must be prepared to get behind it.

Don’t let libraries lose their voice.

Updates will be available on the CLA website as well as the websites of participating associations. For detailed information see the full proposal: A Proposed New Vision for Our National Association.

Cheers, Mike Ridley

Editor-in-Chief, Open Shelf

From the Editor is a regular column from the Editor-in-Chief of Open Shelf. The views express here and throughout the magazine do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ontario Library Association or its members.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hi Mike, great post. I am going to ask you the hardest question I can (as a CLA member and member of the CLA Intellectual Freedom Advisory Committee that has assisted in the creation of pieces of advocacy that have expressed a national voice). I have no history and baggage with CLA, so I am only looking forward (also as part of the working group). Here are some of my questions, which I asked Marie DeYoung and Valoree McKay during the Partnership Meeting they attended prior to the OLA Superconference and CLA summit. Ignoring whatever baggage might be out there, hasn’t the library community, itself, undermined CLA by creating multiple “national voices” that are not based on “marginal differences” but sector-specific differences that are perceived as more relevant and effective by their respective members? Isn’t it wrong to say that Canadian libraries have no “national voice” if CLA disappears?

    From an academic library perspective, what could CLA do that would be more comprehensive and effective from a research and policy perspective than ACRL’s Value of Academic Libraries or CARL’s Public Affairs and Advocacy Report 2012-2013, not to mention its Open Access Advocacy Toolkit? And, while I have heard members of CULC say that they don’t actually do advocacy, the CULC advocacy page outlines a very detailed plan that (if effectively carried out) would have great impact for Canada’s large urban public libraries. I agree with the Future of CLA document that this doesn’t include small, rural libraries across Canada, but don’t the provincial library associations speak for those? How is the CLA voice different or stronger than the CARL/CULC voice at the national level, and how can it help at the local level, like the Value of Libraries report and the Open Access Toolkit?

    There is increasing competition for membership affiliation, and individuals and institutions are voting with their feet. You are right to mention the “alphabet soup,” and it is astonishing just how many library associations there are just in Alberta (LAA, ALTA, AALT, AAAL, GELA, Foothills Library Association, Progressive Librarians Guild, APLAC, etc.). I am sure they are all valuable and essential in their own right, and I don’t want to confuse issues here, but I wonder if what is happening to CLA presages something for provincial associations. I am excited to be part of the CLA Working Group, and I am interested to see how this group will wrestle with the two biggest topics – funding and governance – but CLA’s position is not entirely its own fault. I live on the human plane, and I am sure it has made its share of mistakes. But libraries and library professionals have chosen fragmentation and frequently looked past one of their stated core values – collaboration. Is it possible to knit all of these voices together?

    1. Hard question Jason, but a good one and an important one. The work that CULC, CARL, CHLA and others do is critical. They speak to issues that have national interest and impact.

      My view of CLA (the national voice) is one that works with these organizations to maximize the value of that expertise. For some issues CLA will be the conduit to other spokespeople, other voices.

      I do not think we have chosen fragmentation; we have chosen specific interests (and that is understandable). In the bargain we lost sight (IMHO) of the values you mention that link us together. And, frankly, those are the values that need a strong, united focus at the national level.

      Reinventing CLA might not work. There are certainly lots of challenges. But my guess is that if CLA folds, we will start up something similar in a few years. So, let’s give a renewed CLA our best effort (delighted to have you involved BTW).


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